Tag Archives: MustSee

My Octopus Teacher

[4 stars]

I am so late to this one, I’m embarrassed. It was in my queue for ages, but got lost. If you still haven’t seen this beautifully filmed tale of a man lost, found, and freed…all thanks to his obsession with an octopus, then make the time. You will not be sorry.

Now up for an Oscar, I must admit that this docu is one of the odder I may have ever seen. Not because of the subject, but because the intended focus is utterly orthogonal to the central subject. It certainly films the year-long life of young octopus and its, for lack of a better word, friendship with nature writer and filmmaker Craig Foster. But the story is more about Foster and his self-professed reawakening from the experience.

Foster’s is battling a personal crisis and isolation at the beginning  of the story. It’s that journey, through the experience of meeting the octopus and joining it daily in its world, about which the story flows. Though how much he learns or took away from the experience is something I am still discussing today with others who’ve seen the film.

It is telling that Foster didn’t direct and write this documentary, but allowed fellow artists Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed to tell the story, though they never appear on screen. Without that distance, there would have been a lack of honesty in the final result.

Frankly, the film just has to be experienced…and experienced on your own terms to interpret. I’ve spent days thinking about it afterwards, struggling to write it up and realized that there was no definitive way to do so. It is a must-see film. What you take from it is going to be based on your own experience and state of mind. Certainly, pandemic viewing has impacted that filter.

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The United States vs. Billie Holiday

[4.5 stars]

I hardly know where to begin with Lee Daniels’ (The Butler) latest. The politics? The art? The tragedy? The dark mirror on the present? Perhaps it’s best to just try to do each bit separately…

The voice. There are a handful of singers whose voices are unique signatures, not just because of their sound (there are plenty of them) but because of the emotion they impart with every breath. Billie Holliday is one of those few. Holliday is singular and recognizable and, with every note, grabs you by the throat. Andra Day captures all of that in her beautiful performance and with her expert voice that has you initially wondering if she was lip syncing the original tracks. She isn’t.

The song. You never forget the first time you hear Strange Fruit. It is haunting, horrible, accusatory, righteous, defiant. Writer Suzan-Lori Parks sets it up to perfection in her adaptation, and Daniels knocks it over the fences in the film.

The honesty. Holliday was a flawed person. Damaged and self-destructive, but not paranoid: they were out to get her. She had a string of damaging and intense relationships, including Trevante Rhodes’s (Bird Box) federal agent Jimmy Fletcher and Natasha Lyonne’s (Russian Doll) Tallulah Bankhead. She was also an addict and fiercely independent in ways that damaged others. All of this is on display without judgment and without apology. By keeping the story relatively honest, it’s even more impactful.

The politics. Need a reminder of where we’ve come from and how little has really changed? Here it is…again. While it focuses on one face as the force behind the reign of horror on Holliday in Garrett Hedlund’s (Mudbound) Harry Anslinger, Hoover hovers behind it all as he did over the country for decades. Along with Trial of the Chicago 7, One Night in Miami, Judas and the Black Messiah, Selma, BlacKkKlansman, and so many other recent films, this story adds to the dark map of race relations in this country.

But you have to ultimately come to the most important question: is it a good movie? It is unequivocally an important one. It is somewhat flawed in a general sense. While it is uses clever visuals to take us back in time, it also has some odd POV choices that aren’t always effective. Anslinger is played just a little too oily–which, even if accurate, makes it harder to accept the truth of the tale. And Rhode’s is, amusingly, just a bit too ripped for his role. It may be pleasant to see, but it is out of character and period. And, frankly, Holliday’s sexuality isn’t fully balanced in its presentation and exploration.

But, overall, it is very, very effective and leaves you breathless. And if you needed any indication of Daniels’ own conflicted feelings of the story and the truth, watch through the first half of the credits for a sweet coda.

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The Father

[4.5 stars]

Let’s talk about POV. Like the recent Bliss, Florian Zeller’s freshman outing relies heavily on character point of view and editing to provide the necessary information for navigating the story. By watching very carefully, you can tease apart most of the truth. Most of it. Unlike Bliss, Zeller’s adaptation of his play, with help from Christopher Hampton (Adore), the truth can still elude you; but that’s ok. Unlike previous stories, like Still Alice, the film tries to recreate what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s from the inside rather than primarily from outside. How they go about that is something you just need to experience, but to say you’ve got unreliable narrator is an understatement. But the threads are (mostly) there for the watcher to stay relatively grounded. Honestly, I’m still discussing it with people trying to pull it all apart.

Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes) delivers a wonderfully mercurial performance as his character is buffeted by his confusion and frustration. But while he is the primary POV, his daughter provides a second, which is another way Zeller helps you along. Olivia Colman (The Favourite) delivers a heart-wrenching performance as she navigates her father’s illness, giving us glimpses into the emotional and physical realities and a small touch of what must have been their past.

The rest of the supporting cast is equally capable and storied. Olivia Williams (Maps to the Stars), Mark Gatiss (Locked Down), Rufus Sewell (The Pale Horse), and Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment) perform a wonderfully seamless dance filling out the story.

This is also a movie where the production designer Peter Francis (Rocketman) and editor Yorgos Lamprinos have had huge impact on the story-telling and need to be called out. Pay attention to the details in the sets and how the sequences are put together. Truly amazing work all around.

My only issue with the film comes near the end where it felt a little forced and rushed. It isn’t necessarily an untrue depiction, but my gut is that the events could have remained while the dialogue could have been a little more finessed. That minor criticism aside, The Father has already garnered a lot of nominations and wins, with more sure to come. This is one movie who’s odd ride is worth every moment you spend with it, and it’s a wonderful class in perspective and humility.

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Mid Winter(ish) TV

I’ve not written up some of the new and returning shows over the last few months, so dropping them together in a bunch here. More will be coming in the next few weeks, but this was getting long enough already…

Call Me Kat
This odd offering by Mayim Bialik (Big Bang Theory) is a unique and not entirely comfortable show. It may eventually find it’s feet, but it’s best to think of it as a sketch show or comedy half-hour rather than a story so far. And the abuse of the great Swoosie Kurtz is near criminal. By way of context, this show is based on the UK’s Miranda, adopting the quasi-stand-up nature of the original but trying to push it more toward ensemble…. BTW, if you haven’t caught Miranda, it’s a fascinating to compare the two and it boasts Tom Ellis (Lucifer) in the wish-he-were-my-boyfriend role.

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Mr. Mayor
If you loved The Office, this is probably a show for you. I didn’t and it isn’t for me. It’s just too broad and full of, well, stupid people who aren’t supposed to be stupid or, worse, couldn’t be that stupid and be where they are in life. Given the talent involved in this show, it’s a real shame.

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Call Your Mother
This is a show on the bubble. Kyra Sedgwick (Ten Days in the Valley) manages to walk the line between very broad humor and honest emotion. Whether the writing can keep up with that challenge and create storylines we care about long term…the jury’s still way out on that one, but I’ll give it some more time.

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B Positive
Oh, god, just no. Awful, unbelievable, absurd, insulting, frustrating, and painful.

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The Expanse (series 5)
Twenty years ago, the end of the first season of Farscape was termed “the multipart cliffhanger from hell” by its creator. And it was…and it took a good part of the next season to resolve and cover what happened. The current season of The Expanse reminds me a lot of that structure. After bringing things to a huge climactic pause at the end of the previous season, the various characters are scattered across the solar system pursuing various storylines that will, by necessity, be intertwined and eventually bring them back together. As the show preps for its final season, this is level-setting and putting all the pieces in place for the final confrontations to come. A good season with revelations and some resolutions, especially for Dominique Tipper’s (Mindgamers) Naomi and Wes Chatham’s (Escape Plan 2) Amos, but mostly it serves as set-up for the end.

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Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (series 2)
After its heart-rending and brilliant opening season, I was worried the magic wouldn’t last. It has. And the show, at least so far, continues to build on its characters and conceit. If you’ve yet to try this one out, you absolutely must…and start at the beginning. Yes, it gets heavy, but it builds to one of the most beautiful finales you’ll ever see. And it never loses its sense of humor or love of its characters.

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Promising Young Woman

[4.5 stars]

Some movies just sucker punch you because you’ve no idea what to expect. In terms of quality, this one’s right up there with Soul, Trial of the Chicago 7, and Palm Springs…among the best this season.

Even more impressive is that this is writer and director Emerald Fennell’s (Killing Eve) first feature; she’s better known for her acting chops. But Promising Young Woman makes an impressive application of all she’s learned over the years in front of the camera.

And then there is the woman at the center of the on-screen story, Carrie Mulligan (Collateral).  She flattens you with her powerful performance and shoulders the film on screen with her charisma, intelligence, and sense of humor. From the moment she appears you can’t take your eyes off of her. And once you understand her, you can’t help but cheer her on and not turn away.

There are some nice supporting roles by Lavern Cox (Orange is the New Black), Clancy Brown, Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade), and Alison Brie (Happiest Season). But this story is utterly through Mulligan’s eyes and perspective by necessity, and she carries it off.

The movie does have its weak moments, but they’re few. One aspect is around some of the soundtrack, which goes just a bit overboard at times, not trusting the actors and situation to make the point. The other is around some transitional moments that are less than smooth. But in the face of the rest of the film, I forgive them all.

Promising Young Woman grabs you by the soft bits and drags you through to the end. And it manages to remain triumphant despite the subject and the situations. It is sure to generate controversy and contemplation for the actions and probably even leave a few in the dust as to the title. But that’s all part of the point. Make time for this one, both for the central performance and the story itself. Despite the weird festival season, it’s been making itself heard, and I expect that to continue through the majors over the next few months.

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Soul

[4.5 stars]

Just wow. Not only is this a beautifully drawn and designed film, it’s a clever and engaging animated tale that will entertain young and old alike. In fact, the only reason I couldn’t give this a straight-up 5 stars was because of some of the minor bits that were there for laughs alone for the youngsters and small flaws that made no real-world sense. Otherwise, this is an instant classic and will bear up under rewatching for years to come.

The vocal duelling between Jamie Foxx (Project Power) and Tina Fey (Admission) is wonderfully entertaining and amusingly animated (literally and figuratively). Add the dry fun of Richard Ayoade (The Boxtrolls), Alice Braga (Kill Me Three Times), and Rachel House (Thor: Ragnarok) and you’ve an incredible pallet of humor to bounce off of. A host of smaller roles are given life by talented names as well. And then there’s the jazz arrangements and playing under the guidance of Jon Batiste.

Peter Docter (Inside Out) and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) co-directed and, with an assist by Mike Jones, co-wrote the script. It is a masterful piece of wry wit and honest reflection on life. There’s no point in describing more of it because you should just experience it, whether now or later. It’s a pity this one didn’t see the large screen, but it certainly entertains like it should and doesn’t disappoint.

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Kiss the Ground

[4 stars]

You probably think you know all about carbon sequestration and climate change. And, since you think you do (like me), you likely had also just about given up hope. Even Wood Harrelson (Zombieland: Double Tap) admits as much in his opening comments to this fascinating documentary.

We’re wrong. The next 90 minutes walk you through not only what we can do, but how easy it could be with just a few changes. I actually ended this documentary with a sense of hope, which I haven’t done after a climate change docu in years. Kiss the Ground simply lays out the path and advantages (yes, you can make more money this way) of rebuilding our soil. Sure it goes through how we got where we are; that’s necessary to understand where the resistance is coming from. It also suggests individual choice changes you can make to help the process along.

Make time for this. Be re-energized about the future in a way you probably haven’t in ages. Then make a few changes and push your local and federal leaders to do so as well.

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What the Constitution Means to Me

[3.5 stars]

Heidi Schreck isn’t widely know in film and TV, but her semi-autobiographical play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is topical, educational, and funny amid the points. And there is likely an awful lot of information your social studies/government studies, or whatever passes for those classes these days, left out.

While we sit around waiting for the results of the 2020 election, and shortly after we’ve had yet another “originalist” sat on SCOTUS, this play couldn’t be more timely or appropriate. It isn’t perfect…the structure is a bit odd, the moments don’t always flow perfectly from one thought to another, and capturing the play for film wasn’t done particularly well, though it certainly works. But the overall points and the raw emotion that Schreck can dredge up are worth any moments of weakness. And, given where we are as a country right now, this is a must see 100 minutes for everyone (though, be aware it does contain some adult subject matter and language).

So, while we wait to see what direction we may end up pointing, take a break and gain some additional perspective for what’s to come and what could come.

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All In: The Fight for Democracy

[5 stars]

The single, most important film this year so far. Whether you grew up during these fights or not. Whether you think you know all about it or not. Whether you want to hear the message or not:

See it. Get Angry. Vote.

Learn from it. Hear it. Vote.

Basically: VOTE

In case it isn’t obvious,  directors Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus, with the help of Jack Youngelson’s script, created a compelling presentation of Stacey Abrams gubernatorial run, while providing a historical and contextual framework for the history of voting in America. It’s a call to action that cannot be denied.

Honestly, I wept and gritted my teeth openly…and I knew most of it going in.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

[4.5 stars]

Simple, calm, honest, and heartbreaking. Writer/director Eliza Hittman follows up her breakout Beach Rats by tackling a young woman’s challenge, making it an interesting companion piece even if they aren’t at all related.

Newcomers Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder take us on a journey that suggests more than it explains their lives. It is like the worst and best kind of voyeuristic observation. We never feel we’re intruding, but we also get to follow these young women where we shouldn’t.

This isn’t an easy film to describe. Basically, you should see it. It is a window into a world many will not have experienced, and an exposé of reality that far too many others have. That is done as art only heightens the effect and allows for some moments that will impact you unexpectedly…not because they are horrific in themselves, but because they are honest and imply ever so much more.

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